Published September 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 8
by Quinten Collier
Illustrations by Ross Evertson
Behind the rehab clinic and directly across the street from the work release compound, right on the dividing line between “Historic” Downtown Grand Junction with its fortress-like courthouses, octogenarian cottages and shop windows filled with irrelevancies, there lies the mute, oppressive warehouse atmosphere of the barren industrial district. Here, with the police station not a block away, amidst the street-hardened ex-cons and addicts, many with the famished eyes of those who have seen so much corrosion of the mind, body and soul they have ceased to notice anything else, with bestial tattoos like old war maps encircling their arms; here, in the desert heat that erodes the sidewalks, where 7th Street and South Avenue intersect, here is where a person looking to take the GVT (Grand Valley Transit) will find the main transfer point for busses.
I usually take the Route 9 to Clifton, a section of Mesa County composed of undernourished, deteriorating suburban neighborhoods, clustered trailer parks and stucco shopping plazas eaten by the sun. But I don’t often come to the transfer point. I did today just to see what it was like.
I usually start on 7th Street between Grand and White, a stop or two from the transfer point, because it’s closer to my work. From there the bus continues for about a mile down 7th, a placid street lined with elms and oaks, then hops onto North Avenue, which it takes to the business loop, where North becomes Highway 6&50 and the stops end till Clifton. The ride averages about thirty minutes.
Due in part to suburban sprawl, owning your own personal vehicle is gravely important to most people in the U.S.A., and it is no different in Mesa County. Maybe that’s why it feels as if there’s not a square foot of the inner valley that’s not overrun by black top. A lot of folks believe it is their right to be able to go where ever they want whenever they want; many want the status they believe it bestows upon them to own a super duty deluxe extended cab or a sleek streamlined leather-bound town car with chrome embroidery; there are also those who just want to get to work.
In the bigger cities where a car is more problematic, owing to space restrictions and crime, public transportation is usually more developed and socially acceptable: not here, where those who ride the bus are stigmatized. “Oh, you ride the bus?” is something I’ve heard come out of many mouths, as if it is some shameful deed. It’s true that in this town mainly the dispossessed, those with recourse to absolutely no other mode of locomotion, resort to the bus, and many of them would be driving if they could save enough money to get a car or get their licenses back.
North Avenue runs east and west through the center of Grand Junction and is the valley’s main commercial thoroughfare. When I was in high school, kids my age would come from the outlying towns and counties on Friday and Saturday nights to cruise up and down North Avenue, smoking cigarettes and pot, slurping big gulp sodas and bad food from any of the myriad drive-thru quick slops or convenience stores, hollering at girls flitting by in the darkness like nocturnal hummingbirds washed in neon. The climax of the trip would be at Hastings, the local chain store media Mecca, to spend the week’s allowance or the after school job paycheck on CDs and videos, maybe cop a porno mag.
It doesn’t seem like cruising North is such a hot thing to do anymore on weekend nights. The smaller towns on the Western Slope have grown larger and music, downloadable. But other than that, it doesn’t appear as if much has changed on North Avenue: all the shopping centers are still there, poised like indolent faces waiting to be fed, the cubicle fast food joints still occupy their same huts.
But from the bus, a different world comes into focus; it is the world the consumer is meant to skip over, the world crammed between the shopping centers and gas stations, the world the poor and disempowered must navigate on a daily basis.
Going to Clifton on North, the stops run like this: cigarette drive-thru, furniture store, golf course, the V.A., Hastings, the homeless shelter, Wal-Mart, Work Force Center, Career Center. Wal-Mart and the homeless shelter are invariably the most popular stops. The ride back includes stops at Mesa County Human Services, Habitat for Humanity, Rose Park Mobile Village, and the Texas Roadhouse, behind which looms a square, pink-bricked complex with aquarium-green glass whose very appearance is numbing: Colorado West Mental Health, a prison, like most mental health clinics, run by an administration which regards the human beings in its care as “clients,” which translates into “specimens.”
The Clifton transfer point is where the kids who have no other place to go hang out. If it had been around when I was fifteen I would have been spending a lot of time there, and it’s strange to me how little the delinquents of youth have changed since I was one of them. There really isn’t much difference in physical appearance between the boys and the girls: most are surly, all ornery; some stumpy, others gawky; smattered with acne, smeared with deformed tattoos and greasy hair and bad dye jobs; some shaven-headed; most wearing black t-shirts with rock band logos, ratty jeans or ultra baggy black rave pants replete with a multitude of chiming, unnecessary chains; half sporting sweaty baseball caps; all spitting and boisterously groping themselves, smoking cigarettes and calling the opposite sex and those of the same sex they seek to deride or show affection to ‘bitch’ and ‘hoe;’ announcing through a wall of vulgarity whose ass it is they’re going to beat, all the while putting on prominent display the very insecurities they wish to cover up in the way a lady wearing too much makeup only calls attention to the beauty which she doesn’t possess.
The most heartbreaking of the recent crew of juvenile misfits is the one-armed Hispanic boy. Not over seventeen, he stalks behind the rest of the crew, never confident enough to lead. He never looks anyone in the eyes, but always averts his gaze as if he lives in a state of constant shame. Many times I have seen him with his face painted like the ICP clowns on the shirts he wears, characters that represent an absolute hate of almost everything. The practice of disguising himself never seems to embolden him.
I want to tell him that if he just held his head a little bit higher he would be better off, and if he kept holding his head up, maybe one day he wouldn’t be so terrified by what other people think of him, because what other people think isn’t going to change, you just have to fortify yourself against it and believe in who you are. Unfortunately I have no idea how to express these ideas to the boy and question whether or not it is even my place to do so.
When the kids ride the bus they always sit in the elevated back section, behaving no differently from when they were stationary. I say “kids,” but at least a quarter of them have children of their own. In such cramped quarters it’s impossible not to overhear their conversations as they threaten case workers, parole officers and most vehemently the other parties responsible for the engendering of their child: “Fuck that bitch! I only get to see my baby once a week! If I don’t get to see my son more than once a week I’m gettin’ a lawyer and I’m gonna have her ass!”
Around five in the afternoon Route 9 becomes a theater of the lonely and disenfranchised. There are the people whose bodyweight, in our society obsessed with image, has become their obvious tragedy: the man who always stands, his mass blocking the aisle, sweating and panting, his face covered in a perpetual four day stubble. He is balding and the few curls left encircling his head are stringy with grease; there is never a light in his eyes and it seems as if he registers nothing of the life around him.
Then there’s Donald, always in glasses, with his employment I.D. card hanging from his neck, crew cut and clean-shaven, wheezing before he expires into one of the raised single seats on the left. Donald is a favorite target for the man who talks like Lenny from Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” The latter wears funny hats with eccentric yet impeccable outfits and ceaselessly makes small talk, even when there is no one around he trusts enough to interact with, at which times he chatters to himself.
“So Donald, you just got off work today?”
“Oh yeah. Heading home.”
“I bet you got some groceries yesterday. You always get groceries on Tuesday, ain’t that right, Donald?”
“Oh yeah, yeah, we got a lot of stuff.” I wonder who constitutes “we.” He has a wedding ring, but never speaks about his wife directly. Maybe he just doesn’t give her much thought. Maybe she lives as anonymously as he speaks of her.
“I bet you’re pooped. You looked pooped, Donald. I bet you’re ready to relax and watch some TV.”
“You got that right.”
“What shows are you watching tonight, Donald?”
“I’ll probably start with Law and Order: Criminal Intent at eight, then Law and Order: SVU at nine, then watch Law and Order at ten.”
“Then you’ll go to bed, won’t you, Donald? You never stay up past ten.”
“When I have to work. It makes getting out of bed too hard.”
“Survivor’s not on tonight?”
“Nope. That’s Thursday nights.”
“Oh, because I was gonna say, ‘You’re not skipping Survivor?’”
“Oh no, I’d never miss Survivor. I think I’ve seen just about every episode they put out.”
“Ain’t that something, ay Donald?”
“Oh yeah, it’s a good show.”
A person could get the impression that Donald’s life, whether he’s married or not, consists mostly of work, TV, and the bus rides in-between. A person might ask “What happened to this man’s human capacity to dream? Did it die?” and another person may answer: “No, on the contrary, his dreams grew so overfed they became immobile, and now they rest on the top of his brain, hungering endlessly and suffocating everything beneath them.”
From the man who talks like Lenny, however, one gets the impression that he is much more intelligent than he would prefer you to believe and that the people he engages with his too simple banter are just pawns for his studying. I once complimented his pants, in hopes of finding some common ground on which to hold a discussion; he just stared at me, as if I’d uncovered some awful secret, and mumbled apocalyptically to himself. When he brings props on the bus, such as his Walkie-Talkie, he looks around at the rest of the riders like an actor who is spying on his audience and puzzling together an image of their innermost selves through the responses he gets from them.
Everyday the bus runs (Monday through Saturday), there is an old woman who rides yet never appears to be going anywhere specific, as I’m sure there is on nearly every bus system in the world. She constantly massages her arthritic hands, her knuckles red swollen knobs at the base of the fleshy gnarled roots that are her fingers. I’ve seen her lost in the reflection of herself in the window. A person can tell she was a looker by the way she still cannot break the habit, now addiction, even after the merciless tolls exacted by aloneness and age combined, of attending with meticulous concern her unchanging hair and attire. One afternoon she told me about the book she’d written, an analysis of certain bible passages which she couldn’t find a publisher for. Somehow the Pope heard of its existence and requested a copy—now the only one in the universe—for his library. She said that even if the Pope was the only person on Earth to read it, it was what God wanted to have done.
The bus drivers are oftentimes just as strange and obscure as the passengers. There are two, though, who stand out the most to me: Bill and Sanford. Bill is a rail thin, crotchety, stoic smoker in his early fifties who is unafraid to confront the kids in the back or discharge any person from the bus who is being too belligerent or just getting on his nerves. He dresses in cowboy boots and a silver buckle the size of a small Frisbee and is a favorite target for the palaver of the man who talks like Lenny. I’ve heard some of the kids say his bottle is not filled merely with soda.
For a while he had a girlfriend: a plain, not unattractive blonde at least fifteen years his junior. She’d ride around with him, always in the seat closest to the front, groceries in tow, and they’d talk about the common day to day events that compose life. When she wasn’t around Bill would tell the man who talks like Lenny or another friend of his, a rapacious, batty, weatherworn grandmother with delirious eyes and swampy hair, how Sonya is a good girl but he’d never marry her because his first three wives screwed him over so remorselessly. There were a couple weeks when Sonya didn’t ride the bus. When she returned, lugging more groceries than usual, she was crestfallen and apologetic. Bill attempted to humor her and make small talk, but it was obvious he couldn’t put his heart into it. Soon after Sonya disappeared completely from Route 9.
Sanford is a top bald, long, silver haired, squat, seemingly mundane and polite fellow with an air of practiced harmlessness. He is overly gentle when dealing with those in wheelchairs, and too cheerful for a man whose job it is to shuttle about this city, whose every shade is gray, those battered and busted, but just stable enough to avoid the ambulance or hearse. Why does he give such a compassionate smile to the exiting forty-year-old man who was just trying to seduce a fourteen-year-old girl? Why does he stay quiet as two burly, bulging, tattooed ex-cons with liquor on their breath threaten each other across the interior of the bus, gesticulating like frenzied bears?
These are simply rhetorical questions, for I have no desire to see any deeper into Sanford’s dubious inner workings. Though, there are times on the bus when a black silence emerges from the collective defeats and deformities of those on it and reigns, and the things the occupants don’t want to see about themselves and those around them become hideously clear. Then every rider, even the clean ones, those with pressed shirts and khakis, who chose the bus only as a last resort of transport, recognize in the faces of those confined with them the scars they themselves possess. It is a fevered revelation in which those who’ve told themselves they are above and superior to the infirm and discarded find that they use the same words and phrases as those they belittle and despise. In this moment all those in transit become transient, haunted by their own humanity, belonging, no matter what poses they assume in the exterior world, to this mutilated caravansary of inescapable suffering and foundered hope.
But even in this pit, amidst the unhealed and despoiled, there is, from time to time, a beacon of light that shudders forth to illuminate and redeem the faces of us outcasts: At the Golf Course stop, a family—mother, father, daughter and son—steps onto the bus. The mother is flaxen-haired and pretty, the father scruffy yet orderly, both children radiate that unmitigated wonder of childhood. They huddle together on the bench seat to find comfort from the biting winter air and as they do so the entire bus becomes warmer, and, to an odd degree, almost homey. Even when the family gets off at the homeless shelter there is a certainty in the hearts of the observers that they will be all right, for they have each other as guards and gatekeepers to protect against that coming cruelty and emptiness particular to the night, and knowing this makes the lightless hours easier for the rest of us to confront, believing that we too may some day find the same shelter. •